Norwegian Language Blog

The I, the Y and the J Posted by on Apr 21, 2013 in Language

Norsk er lett å stave. Norwegian is easy to spell. For learners being used to the quirks of English spelling (why on earth is ”weemen” spelt with an o?), the Norwegian system may seem like a godsend: You write things more or less like they sound: sjåfør (chauffeur), miljø (milieu; environment). Fortunately, there are still some utfordringer (challenges) for that geeky part of your hjerne (brain). Among them are

The sj sound and the kj sound

  • Sj sounds like the English sh of shoe: sju (”shoo”, seven).
  • Kj sounds like the h- of huge (as pronounced in England, that is, ”hyuge”): kjære (”hyare”, dear). The exact sound doesn’t really exist in English, but it’s typical of German: Ich liebe dich.

The two sounds are sometimes confused, so that the names Kjell and Shell (the oil company) are both pronounced ”Sjell”. Unless you really want to upset educated Norwegians, I wouldn’t recommend that you copy this ”trend”. 🙂

The bad things is that these two sounds are written in several different ways, so you really have to memorize the spelling of each word where one of them occurs:

  • The sj sound can be written as:
    • sj: sjokolade (chocolate)
    • skj: skjold (shield)
    • sk: ski (”shee”, skis)
    • g in a couple of words of French origin: geni (”shehNEE”, genious)
    • j in a couple of words of French origin: journalist (”shoornaLIST”)
  • The kj sound can be written as:
    • kj: kjeks (biscuit)
    • k: kylling (chicken)

There is a bit of logic here: The letter j does not normally appear in front of i or y (save in a few words such as jypling, greenhorn, and sjiraff, giraffe). And the letter k and the combo sk usually have their normal, ”hard” pronunciation in front of vowels other than i or y, such as skole (”SKOHleh”, school) and Kari [KAHree]. So, to indicate a ”soft” pronunciation in such words, a j is inserted: skjold [sholl], Kjartan [HYARtan]. In front of i and y these sounds are naturally ”soft”, so the j would be superfluos: kino [”HYEE-noh”, cinema), skyte (”SHEE-teh”, to shoot).

A similar system is used for the letter g. It is pronounced ”y-” (as in yet) in front of i and y, but ”g-” everywhere else – unless it is followed by a j. So, gi (give), gyte (spawn) and gjøre (do) all start with the same sound as English yellow.

If this seems confusing, maybe this little verse, which I learnt at school, will help:

I-en og y-en
gikk på byen
så møtte de j-en
men ville ikke se’en.

The I and the Y
went to town
then they met the J
but didn’t want to see ’im.


Here’s a soundfile of it: iyj

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About the Author: Bjørn A. Bojesen

I was born in Denmark, but spent large parts of my childhood and study years in Norway. I later returned to Denmark, where I finished my MA in Scandinavian Studies. Having relatives in Sweden as well, I feel very Scandinavian! I enjoy reading and travelling, and sharing stories with you! You’re always welcome to share your thoughts with me and the other readers.


  1. Birgit Johansen Seide:

    Love the educational aspect of your page. 🙂

  2. Flor:

    kill me now please, it would be the easiest!!!! 😉

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Flor Is it so hard? 🙂 No, I’d rather give you some tips for language-learning! 😀

  3. Dan Sizemore:

    Thanks for the insight. I am ethnically largely Norwegian, and will be going to Norway for the first time. My great grandparents left in 1906. I have undertaken to at least familiarize myself with Norsk. So insight from natives is particularly useful. Oh, I have a friend who is ethnically Swedish, but grew up in Finland, then moved to Norway. He lives in the US Now, AND IS 88. He tells me that Danish is bad Norwegian and Swedish is terrible Norwegian! His mother tongue of Finnish is safe since it isn’t Scandanavian . Is there anywhere that I might hear your little rhyme Norsk pronunciation is too primitive to make it sound right

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Dan Sizemore @Dan
      I’ve sent you an e-mail with a sound file. Thanks for the fun comment re Danish and Swedish! 🙂

  4. David Russell:

    Is there any way you could make that soundfile that you sent to Dan accessible as a link on this article you’ve written?

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @David Russell @David – I’ll see if I can find the file somewhere.

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @David Russell Hello David, I didn’t find the file. I made a new one, and added it to the post (wasn’t able to embed, though). Good luck!

  5. Ginny Bear:

    The difference between the sj and kj sounds is unclear to me as it is compared to British English and German sounds, and I’m an American English speaker. I don’t know how huge is pronounced in British English. Is it an aspirated h or ? Since you say educated Norwegians notice the difference, I would like to get this right!

  6. Ginny Bear:

    In case it’s not clear, it’s the kj sound I’m asking about.

    • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

      @Ginny Bear Hello Ginny Bear. Thank you for your question. The kj sound is a ”palatal fricative”, written C in the International Phonetic Alphabet. It’s hard to describe otherwise – you could perhaps try to pronounce the word YES some times, while you gradually close your mouth more, until the Y sounds as if it is ”hissing” through your mouth. Actually, Tolkien (author of ”Lord of the Rings”) often used the same sound for names, spelling it ”HY” (”Hyarmen”). Maybe that would help you? So, ”kjole” should be said as ”hyoleh” (with a soft ”hiss”), ”kirke” should be ”hyeerkeh” and so on. Google Translate does it perfectly, BTW:

      • Bjørn A. Bojesen:

        @Bjørn A. Bojesen Hi again Ginny Bear! Sorry, I made a mistake: The kj sound is written Ç in the IPA. Good luck! 🙂